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Paper, Pixels & The Brain – Onscreen Text vs Printed Text

Onscreen Text vs Printed Text

Compared with printed text, it appears that reading onscreen text may drain more of our mental resources and make it a little harder to remember what we have read. Here at GSM we do a lot of reading, so we thought it would be interesting to check this theory out…

Research indicates that modern screens and e-readers fail to adequately recreate certain tactile experiences of reading on paper. They also prevent people from navigating long texts in an intuitive and satisfying way. This, in turn, affects reading comprehension. There are two reasons for this. one based on the physiological aspects of the brain, and the psychology of the reader. The other is the sensing and processing of the information we read.

The Physical

It all comes down to the way the human brain functions. When reading printed text we access both the visual and kinaesthetic regions of the brain. When reading onscreen that tactility and stimulation to the brain is reduced.

Think of a magazine. You can;

  • feel it’s weight, texture and thickness.
  • see where an article begins and ends.
  • quickly leaf through the pages with your fingers.

This perceptible, direct experience gives you a mental map of the entire text. This is particularly important if the text is long as it requires quicker navigation. You need to be able to leaf back and forth through different parts of the text to see, review and comprehend relationships and contexts.

Now think about reading onscreen. This physical experience is greatly reduced. You can only;

  • see a page or two at a time.
  • experience the length of a text by using the scrollbar or other abstract markers such as page numbers.
  • turn pages with a flick of the finger but with less tactility as your fingers only glide along smooth glass.

In addition to this, the pixelated microsecond flashes on the device distract and tire the brain.

The Psychological

People’s attitudes toward different kinds of media also affect comprehension. Many people approach computers with a state of mind less conducive to learning than the one they bring to paper. This affects their level of comprehension.

Sensing and Processing

Printed text appears to communicate more to our emotions than a screen does. A comparison between reading a short narrative text on an iPad with reading it on paper resulted in the test subjects becoming more deeply involved with the story when reading from paper. The findings open doors to essential insights with a rather classical bent: Mind and body are interlinked.

Studies show that our brains do not work like computers. We tend to sense and process sensory perceptions simultaneously rather than sensing first and then processing. When this occurs there is a much greater and closer connection between what we sense and what we understand.

The Message

So, rather than asking how to get our message through to our target audience, let’s look at the message itself. While research has shown people reading digitally do well on answering concrete questions, those reading in print do better on abstract questions needing inferential reasoning. This means onscreen messages need to be short and simple while more indepth messages really need to be delivered in the form of printed text.

This article was originally published in GSM1. To read this and other great articles purchase this issue here.